Is this Germaine Greer's #listeningtomen face? Photo: Getty
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Mansplainers anonymous: Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit’s lead essay became a viral sensation because many women recognised the experience of having their expertise instantly dismissed because of the lady-shaped package it came in. 

Men Explain Things to Me
Rebecca Solnit
Granta, 144pp, $12.99

A few months ago, I went to record a television show about politics. One of my fellow guests was a male political writer, past the first flush of youth, and for half an hour we gave the somnambulant viewers of daytime telly the benefit of our dubious wisdom. Afterwards, I asked him what he was off to do next. “Oh, lunch with a spad. You know, we talk off the record and they give me stuff for the paper.” He continued in this vein for several minutes, during which my eyebrows crept ever closer to my hairline. Was this guy explaining the concept of the lobby system to me? It appeared that he was. He must have thought I’d won the opportunity to appear on a politics TV show in a raffle.

Thanks to the lead essay in this collection by Rebecca Solnit, I knew that I wasn’t alone in being patronised in this intriguingly gendered way. Men Explain Things to Me begins with the writer in Aspen at the home of an “imposing man who’d made a lot of money”. Hearing that she is an author, the man asks, “in the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice”, what her books are about. She begins to tell him about her latest work, on Eadweard Muybridge, but he cuts her off: “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?” She and her friend try in vain to tell him that it’s her book he’s talking about. But he carries on, “with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority”. When her friend finally communicates the idea that a woman could have written the book the Very Important Man liked so much, it transpires he has not even read it, just read about it in the New York Review of Books. He turns ashen.

Solnit’s essay became a viral sensation because so many women recognised an experience they had never been able to vocalise before: having their expertise instantly dismissed because of the lady-shaped package it came in. The subsequent discussion led to the coinage of the word “mansplaining” (although Solnit’s not a fan of it and neither am I: you don’t fight being patronised by patronising others in return. I’ve met at least, ooh, two or three men, maybe four, who were perfectly tolerable human beings).

The internet being what it is, the essay was strip-mined for that one idea and very little attention was paid to where Solnit takes it next. She weaves a global story of women’s voices and their testimony being downgraded or dismissed: the female FBI agent whose warnings about al-Qaeda were ignored; the women who need a male witness to corroborate their rape; the writers and politicians whose anger is read as “shrill” and “hysterical”, who are told to “make me a sandwich” by 17-year-old neckbeards on Reddit. We saw it again when William Hague’s recent attendance at a summit on rape in war zones was deemed a trivial distraction from Proper Foreign Policy, which involves bombs and flags and men firing AK-47s into the air. (The Bosnian war: 50,000 rapes. Eastern Congo: 22 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women report conflict-related sexual violence. Iraq: who knows?) That self-important guy in Aspen is the thin end of a thick wedge.

Solnit was the perfect writer to tackle the subject: her prose style is so clear and cool that surely no one can have caricatured her as a shrieking harpy? (My mouse hand strays to Google to disprove myself.) There are only seven essays in this book, but the subjects range from the metaphors of Virginia Woolf to the sexual harassment suffered by female protesters in the Arab spring; perhaps the most disturbing is a piece mirroring Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s approach to his hotel maids with the IMF’s treatment of developing countries. I finished this book and immediately wanted to buy all the author’s other works. In future, I would like Rebecca Solnit to Explain Things to Me.

Helen Lewis is the deputy editor of the New Statesman

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

Photo: Getty
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No, the battle in Momentum isn't about young against old

Jon Lansman and his allies' narrative doesn't add up, argues Rida Vaquas.

If you examined the recent coverage around Momentum, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was headed towards an acrimonious split, judging by the vitriol, paranoia and lurid accusations that have appeared online in the last couple days. You’d also be forgiven for thinking that this divide was between a Trotskyist old guard who can’t countenance new ways of working, and hip youngsters who are filled with idealism and better at memes. You might then be incredibly bemused as to how the Trotskyists Momentum was keen to deny existed over the summer have suddenly come to the brink of launching a ‘takeover bid’.

However these accounts, whatever intentions or frustrations that they are driven by, largely misrepresent the dispute within Momentum and what transpired at the now infamous National Committee meeting last Saturday.

In the first instance, ‘young people’ are by no means universally on the side of e-democracy as embodied by the MxV online platform, nor did all young people at the National Committee vote for Jon Lansman’s proposal which would make this platform the essential method of deciding Momentum policy.

Being on National Committee as the representative from Red Labour, I spoke in favour of a conference with delegates from local groups, believing this is the best way to ensure local groups are at the forefront of what we do as an organisation.

I was nineteen years old then. Unfortunately speaking and voting in favour of a delegates based conference has morphed me into a Trotskyist sectarian from the 1970s, aging me by over thirty years.

Moreover I was by no means the only young person in favour of this, Josie Runswick (LGBT+ representative) and the Scottish delegates Martyn Cook and Lauren Gilmour are all under thirty and all voted for a delegates based national conference. I say this to highlight that the caricature of an intergenerational war between the old and the new is precisely that: a caricature bearing little relation to a much more nuanced reality.

Furthermore, I believe that many people who voted for a delegates-based conference would be rather astounded to find themselves described as Trotskyists. I do not deny that there are Trotskyists on National Committee, nor do I deny that Trotskyists supported a delegates-based conference – that is an open position of theirs. What I do object is a characterisation of the 32 delegates who voted for a delegates-based conference as Trotskyists, or at best, gullible fools who’ve been taken in.  Many regional delegates were mandated by the people to whom they are accountable to support a national conference based on this democratic model, following broad and free political discussion within their regions. As thrilling as it might be to fantasise about a sinister plot driven by the shadow emperors of the hard Left against all that it is sensible and moderate in Momentum, the truth is rather more mundane. Jon Lansman and his supporters failed to convince people in local groups of the merits of his e-democracy proposal, and as a result lost the vote.

I do not think that Momentum is doomed to fail on account of the particular details of our internal structures, providing that there is democracy, accountability and grassroots participation embedded into it. I do not think Momentum is doomed to fail the moment Jon Lansman, however much respect I have for him, loses a vote. I do not even think Momentum is doomed to fail if Trotskyists are involved, or even win sometimes, if they make their case openly and convince others of their ideas in the structures available.

The existential threat that Momentum faces is none of these things, it is the propagation of a toxic and polarised political culture based on cliques and personal loyalties as opposed to genuine political discussion on how we can transform labour movement and transform society. It is a political culture in which those opposed to you in the organisation are treated as alien invaders hell-bent on destroying it, even when we’ve worked together to build it up, and we worked together before the Corbyn moment even happened. It is a political culture where members drag others through the mud, using the rhetoric of the Right that’s been used to attack all of us, on social and national media and lend their tacit support to witch hunts that saw thousands of Labour members and supporters barred from voting in the summer. It is ultimately a political culture in which our trust in each other and capacity to work together on is irreparably eroded.

We have a tremendous task facing us: to fight for a socialist alternative in a global context where far right populism is rapidly accruing victories; to fight for the Labour Party to win governmental power; to fight for a world in which working class people have the power to collectively change their lives and change the societies we live in. In short: there is an urgent need to get our act together. This will not be accomplished by sniping about ‘saboteurs’ but by debating the kind of politics we want clearly and openly, and then coming together to campaign from a grassroots level upwards.

Rida Vaquas is Red Labour Representative on Momentum National Committee.